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5/4/18

Capitalism and the constitution of the self

Matt Bruenig, on a standard defense of private property:
They take as a given the general intuition people have that it's wrong to violate other people's bodies - it's wrong to hit someone, it's wrong to molest someone - and then they try to extend your person into non-person things. So they try to say, "This land is sort of like my body..."
Leftists, of course, devote much of their critique to laying out the ramifications of this first assumption: accept the institution of private property, and you run into obvious ethical problems if one person claims too much of it, or if there are competing claims on the same property, or if you run out of property that can be claimed, etcetera. The upshot of these arguments, inevitably, is that we need to do away with private property altogether - and to my mind, these arguments are typically pretty sound and easy to understand. So why, then, do we still have private property?

The short answer is that we still have private property because most people have yet to develop the class consciousness which calls for its abolition. But this explanation, I think, doesn't answer the question so much as reframe it: why hasn't sustained and incisive left criticism of capitalism done more to raise class consciousness? There is another short answer here, too - "it's complicated" - but for now, I want to focus on what could be one small piece of the puzzle.

Lacan, in one of his more enduring insights, observed that one of the first challenges a human child faces is to distinguish its own body from the exterior world. This is not a distinction that the fetus makes in the womb, but it becomes pragmatically necessary (and intuitive) as the child builds an identity as a discrete, autonomous being - a self. Famously, Lacan explained the psychodynamics of this process through the scenario of a child looking at itself in the mirror; but a child also develops a sense of self, he argues, by the way other people interact with it. The mother gives a name to the child, for example, and uses that name to refer to some things, but not others.

From this fundamental insight about the constitution of the self, Lacan elaborated an entire theory of human psychology. Much of our mental life, he argued, revolves around the need to define a self as distinct from the rest of the world - and to defend that conception of the self. Compulsively, we rationalize it and we fight to maintain its internal consistency against disintegration into the outside world.

This account of psychology seems plausible to me, and I think it also gives us some insight into capitalism's hold on the human mind. There is little doubt on the liberal-left that power and ideology work to impose socially-constructed identities upon us from the moment we are born, and that these identities can become a deeply rooted, psychologically entrenched part of the way that we see ourselves. Should we be surprised, then, to discover that capitalism does this too - by blurring, from the very beginning, the cognitive line between our selves and our property?

Obviously, there is a simple sense in which people recognize that their possessions are not actually a part of their body.* Capitalism does not need that distinction to collapse, certainly not at the level of formal articulation and conscious thought; all it requires is for our relationship with "private property" to trigger the same compulsive rationalization and defensiveness that gets triggered when the self is threatened. To the extent that capitalists really think of their property as in some sense an "extension of their persons," they will presumably act with the same instinctive irrational violence that you would expect if they were personally in danger.

If there's anything to this, then Lacan may provide us with the germ of an explanation for the frequent failure of left argumentation to foster class consciousness. The psychological compulsion to defend and rationalize the self is not something that you can persuade people to stop doing; neither logic nor appeals to conscience are going to get people to abandon a right to property that they see as a fundamental part of who they are. The first step, in this case, would be to break the unconscious identification that people have internalized between their selves and their property. This may seem like a remedial distinction, but I wonder, immersed in capitalist ideology, how clear this distinction actually is.


* Though there is, I think, a certain cognitive dissonance here that occasionally emerges in our language. If we think that someone should buy a shirt or a car, we might say that it "is so you"; if someone is always playing with a smartphone, we might say that it "is practically a part of his hand"; if someone feels a deep emotional connection with their garden or a picture they've painted, they might say that it "is part of who I am." Our language is full of turns of phrase that expand, at least rhetorically, the boundaries of the self to encompass property - such figures of speech, Freud taught us, are rarely unmotivated.

4/29/18

The problem is anti-socialism

If I were to pick one question that weighs on the mind of the modern activist left more than any other, the choice would be easy: "Why have our politics become so combative? Why has the left devolved so completely into ideological sectarianism, social tribalism, and interpersonal feuding?" Certainly, at the level of world-historical politics, this strain of anxiety may seem trivial and self-absorbed - but on the other hand, of course activists are going to have direct concerns about their own lived experiences as activists. And for many (perhaps most) on the modern left, experiences often fall somewhere on a spectrum between stressful and traumatic.

In general, I've seen a few standard explanations for this:
  • The problem is social media - It is something about online that makes the discourse toxic and unproductive. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook facilitate conversations in a way that incentivizes harassment, attention-seeking, sociopathy, and so on. Their moderation is either non-existent or actively malicious; their engagement systems (favs, likes, and such) create compulsive behavior; quirks of the medium (character limits, the permanence of casual posts, the absence of tone) are uniformly hostile to friendly, productive dialogue.
  • The problem is some guys - In any given left space, there are a handful of bad apples who are ruining everything for everyone. Among this local DSA chapter, it's some problematic dude or clique who dominates conversations, who are trying to consolidate power, who have caused yet another controversy; online, it's the weirdo pariah who constantly sows conflict; at the level of national politics, it's Clinton, or it's Bernie.
  • The problem is first-world privilege - First-world activists aren't actually dealing with significant political problems; their endless scandals and controversies are just what happens when people who are used to getting their way socialize and encounter even the smallest disagreements. If the first-world "left" actually faced significant oppression from the right, it would show much more unity and solidarity than it does.
While all of these things probably contribute to the general atmosphere of combat and hostility, I want to propose a simpler answer that I think is too often overlooked: the problem is anti-socialism.

Even today, I do not think there is an adequate appreciation on the left of just how marginalized and reviled socialists are in the United States. Historically, socialists have usually been regarded - by Republicans and Democrats alike - as dangerous, immoral, and alien extremists. We have routinely been denied basic civil and human rights, both informally (through selective enforcement, de facto discrimination, etcetera) and formally (anti-communist legislation, private sector employment policies, and so on). We are the target of an entire discourse of bigotry with its own arsenal of slurs (EG pinko, commie, brocialist). To put public sentiment in perspective, here's a typical poll from less than three years ago:


For most of my life as an activist, my experience of anti-socialism has reflected this poll. When I was involved in SDS, my chapter was surveilled and attacked by police officers; we were routinely ridiculed in the media; we were shut out of supposedly "public" spaces and denied "public" resources; and quite often, our most ferocious and belligerent critics were Democrats who identified as "left" and "progressive". Organizing against the Iraq War, the left organizations I was involved in could often only count on solidarity and coordination with local Muslim groups; even when Democrats adopted an antiwar posture around 2005, we were still marginalized as extremists, apologists for terrorism, and unpatriotic traitors. During the early Obama years, you couldn't even call for a public option - much less for single-payer - without being attacked by liberals as unserious, privileged idealists who were willing to risk the health of women and minorities in pursuit of a pipe dream. This is how it's always been.

And while I doubt that the left wants to hear this, I don't think all that much has changed. Today, the most favorable polls say that only about a third of all Americans have a positive view of socialism - a fifteen point improvement from 2009, but still lower than Trump's lowest approval ratings. And when you break down the numbers*, the picture gets even clearer:


On one hand, even the minimal support that socialism has is squishy: put four people with a "favorable" view of socialism in a room, and only one of them will support it without reservation. On the other hand, meanwhile, opposition to socialism is still rabid. A plurality of the opposition - and in fact, a plurality of the entire population - doesn't just dislike socialism: they hate it. On balance, then, the picture is clear: a tiny fraction of the population will embrace socialism without qualification, while an overwhelming majority meets it with tepid support or open hostility.

In light of this, I think there's some solid quantitative evidence to support the timeless, enduring explanation that socialists have always offered for left factionalism: liberal squishes. A significant number of people who are willing to nominally identify as socialists are in fact deeply suspicious of the socialist project; either unwittingly or quite cynically, their hope is to co-opt socialism for liberalism, to steer it back towards liberal priorities, and to purge its ranks of anyone who is focused on the fight against capitalism.

Account for squishes, and a lot of the other explanations diminish in importance. It's true that social media has made left in-fighting more visible than it's ever been before, it's true that a few doofuses are disproportionately responsible for all kinds of local and even national dysfunctions, and it's true that a lot of these controversies emerge precisely because the political stakes are so low. But anti-socialism remains one of the most powerful forces in American politics, and what would be surprising is if it didn't wreak a massive amount of havoc on the left.


* Unfortunately the polling on public attitudes towards socialism is still really spotty, so it's hard to get a clear view of how attitudes have changed, especially over the past few years, and especially if you want to break down the data.

4/28/18

On Jacobin's antidepressants article - a quick English lesson

Meagan Day, in a quick read on Jacobin, discusses the perils of private pharmaceutical production. That production, under capitalism, "is left up to the private corporations" on the theory that "the private sector’s interests align with the public’s" - but in fact, Day argues, because "corporations exist to maximize profit," drug companies encounter "constant conflicts of interest" which encourage them to profit "at the expense of the public good." To illustrate this problem, Day discusses traumatic "experiences of withdrawal from long-term antidepressant use," and explains that "no research had been conducted" on this problem because drug companies have a financial incentive to suppress any "information that would put a stop to those refills."

The conflict-of-interest critique that Day is working with here is explicit, it has long been a point of uncontroversial conventional wisdom on the liberal-left, and her focus on the issue of antidepressant withdrawal symptoms makes her discussion relevant and accessible to anyone who's been paying attention to the news in recent weeks. This is precisely what one should expect a publication like Jacobin to do: popularize criticism of capitalism by talking about problems that people can relate to.


Predictably, even this utterly benign article has run into a backlash online. Here, I just want to draw attention to how utterly indefensible and objectively stupid this latest round of controversy actually is. It centers on a single passage:
Antidepressant users often emphasize that having drugs available during depressive episodes literally saved their lives. The problem is what happens when patients continue taking them year after year, and become unable to stop. Many indicate that health professionals never communicated the hazards of discontinuation.
Somehow, critics have managed to conclude that there is "stigma embedded in that sentence" which suggests that it is not "fine to take antidepressants indefinitely." Day, in other words, is telling people that they shouldn't take antidepressants.

In response, some folks have insisted that this reading has nothing to do with the rest of the article, that the author explicitly disclaims it, that her "point" is as explained above, and that she is at worst guilty of a passing gaffe or inelegant phrasing. But this, I think, is far too generous to Day's critics. As a matter of basic reading comprehension, the sentence in question does not criticize the use of antidepressants. There is no grammatical ambiguity here whatsoever. The language of the sentence simply cannot be parsed to mean what its critics say that it means - and this is true not because of conjecture about what Day "intended" or because of nebulously holistic assessments of "context", but because of basic facts about how statements are constructed in English.

It is tedious and embarrassing to have to spell this out, but here we go:

"And" signals the presence of two necessary clauses, and the position of "unable" as the head adjective of the second predicate tells us that "The problem" necessarily has to do with inability. This is the simplest reading here: Day is just pro-choice when it comes to antidepressant use. Anything beyond this reading has to burden the actual text of the article with intentions and judgments that are neither expressed nor logically implicit. Any attempt to do so will either involve omitting the circled text, or interpolating into that circle text which is not actually present.

Again: this is remedial. But it is remedial only because the failure of reading here is so catastrophic, the error so elementary, and the correction so basic. I'll leave it to the reader to decide why so many seemingly competent English speakers managed to make the same utterly ridiculous mistake.

4/23/18

That prom picture with the armed dad - it's actually about capitalism

A few days ago, former NFL kicker Jay Feely tweeted out a picture of his daughter and her date preparing to attend their high school prom. Remarkably, Feely is in the picture as well - in fact, he is the center of attention, standing imposingly between the couple in a dark polo shirt and baseball cap. With his left hand, he pulls his daughter close, gripping her shoulder; she has a slight slouch beneath his weight, her arms hanging limply at her sides. Her date, meanwhile, stands flustered in the background, hands in his pockets, mouth creased in resignation. Feely, in his right hand - menacingly close to the date's groin - is holding a handgun.


A lot of people found the picture shocking, but anyone familiar with the genre knows that it's a standard-issue artifact of US patriarchy. The same figure appears on t-shirts, bumper stickers, coffee mugs, bad sitcom jokes, and bad sitcom titles: the possessive father warding off or dictating terms to potential suitors, often with the threat of violence. Even former President Obama took up the narrative:
The Jonas Brothers are here...Sasha and Malia are huge fans. But, boys, don't get any ideas. I have two words for you: predator drones. You will never see it coming. You think I'm joking.
That last line marks the deep ambivalence of the Possessive Dad theme: always delivered in a jokey tone, is it ever actually a joke? Ostensibly, we are laughing at the cartoonishly disproportionate belligerence and unprovoked hostility - but of course, the Possessive Dad is never the butt of the joke. He's a badass with a gun or an army of drones; his warnings are written in dripping blood font, with the i's dotted in skulls. The suitor, meanwhile, is never a credible rival: he is a hapless beta male who either accepts terms or faces the consequences. We would laugh at Possessive Dad's absurd display of power and authority, but something in our culture enjoys it, and even respects it.

There is also, of course, another potential reading of this picture: the passion of dad's rivalry and the obsession with his daughter's sex life both point in the same direction. The Freudian cannot help but see, in the figure of the Possessive Dad, a minor rebellion against the same incest taboo that separated him from his mother - the infantile expression of an Oedipus complex that remains unresolved.

But Possessive Dad, again, will not be ridiculed for this. Instead, he insists: "This is not sexual - I'm merely defending what is mine with extreme violence, which is cool as hell."


I noted that something in our culture approves of this posture. Here, I want to propose that at his heart, Possessive Dad is a creature of patriarchy who we rationalize through the logic of private property. His behavior is driven by passion for his daughter, but the incest taboo prevents him from acknowledging this - so to get around that, she is objectified, and incorporated into the ostensibly asexual ideology of private possession and ownership. It is the doctrine of private property, with its expansive license for violence, that he offers to explain the intensity of his vigilance. If that license had limits, it wouldn't suffice to explain just how far he is willing to go to defend his daughter, and we would be tempted to ask why he is really being so aggressive; but private property warrants everything from gunshots to drone strikes, so the rationalization works. Capitalism is the language of his sublimation.

I'm not breaking any new ground here by pointing out that capitalism commodifies women, though I think its role in this instance is probably underappreciated - but in any case, the Possessive Dad phenomenon demonstrates with unusual clarity the dialectical relationship between private property and patriarchy. The rhetoric of capitalist property rights provides a fig leaf for horny dads, and in return, horny dads proclaim and affirm the sovereignty of capitalism.

4/20/18

Russiagate can't be reconciled with identitarian politics

Atlanta-based NPR station WABE has run a hit piece on left activist Anoa Changa, suggesting that her appearance on Sputnik radio has "put her credibility at risk, while furthering Russia’s effort to create chaos in the U.S." I'm not going to delve into the weeds or rehearse my usual warnings about Russophobia on this one, mostly because Adam Johnson has already done a fine job in his piece about the incident for FAIR; but what I will point out is a profound reversal at work here in the way that liberal-left politics talks about identity.

Consider this passage from the WABE piece:
Changa helped lead a protest last year at the progressive Netroots Nation convention drowning out the speech of Stacey Evans, a Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia...Changa and the other protesters chanted “trust black women.”
"Trust black women," of course, is a paradigm call for identitarian deference - and ordinarily, this is a point that the liberal-left would take quite seriously. But here, the Russiagate narrative insists that we can't trust a black woman, since Anoa may be compromised by the Russian government. The Russiagate narrative and the identitarian position are directly at odds, and there's no way to reconcile them. Even if we decide that Anoa has maintained her independence and credibility, we have subjected her to our judgment, instead of trusting her; necessarily, Russiagate is a license for anyone to call anyone's politics into question, regardless of identity.

And while it may be tempting to dismiss this as some kind of superficial or passing hypocrisy, Anoa's story has exposed what is in fact a quite fundamental contradiction the way we talk about identity and ideology.

At its core, the identitarian position tells us that we derive our politics from a lived experience defined exclusively by personal identity. That's why the authority and credibility one has when speaking on a topic related to their identity is unimpeachable: a disabled person, for example, will have the most informed and unbiased perspective on any issue related to disability. There is some obvious truth to this point, I think, which is why even people who are unacquainted with the philosophical basis for identitarian thought tend to take it seriously.

But there's also a competing theory, which says that personal identity does not reliably indicate the authority and credibility of one's politics. Within any given identity category, there is always a significant diversity of perspectives on even the most basic political questions. And these perspectives can, in turn, be influenced by all kinds of things - including, for example, large-scale international psyops.


I don't think that Russia in particular has any kind of significant influence on American politics. And I think that being an intelligent and fiercely principled woman obviously does more to explain Anoa's politics than elaborate conspiracy theories about Putin slipping her rubles under the table. But I do think that the second theory, in general, is better than the first: personal identity only does so much to determine one's politics.

Regardless, no matter where one comes down on this, it should be clear that one can't have it both ways. Accept the identitarian position, and insist that it is personal identity which dictates our politics; accept the Russiagate theory, and concede that other factors can influence our politics, too. Or you could, I suppose, switch between one rhetoric and the other depending on whose politics you want to affirm or discredit - but no one would do that, right?

3/26/18

A brief take on primitivism

A couple of readers have asked for my take on primitivism, so here it is:

The earth has faced all kinds of horrific environmental catastrophes in its history - extinction events that wiped out most of the life on the planet, that exhausted its natural resources, that wrecked its natural beauty, and so on. It has seen apocalyptic-scale vulcanism, it has been entombed in miles of ice, it has been poisoned with oceans of methane, it has collided with rocks the size of planets. This sort of thing happens to the earth on a regular basis, and it will happen again soon enough.

Primitivists usually ask us to think of the welfare of the earth on geological time scales instead of narrowly considering our short-term interests, as humans are wont to do. I am not sure how we do this without concluding that recurring, natural extinction events pose the most serious long-term threat to life on earth. And if we do that, it would seem to follow directly that our ecological responsibility is to do everything we can to prevent these disasters.

This is not at all some utterly fantastic ambition: for example, we probably already have the technology to deflect near-earth objects using gravity tractors and such. But the point is that while some ecological dangers (climate change, resource depletion, and so on) arguably recommend primitivist solutions, other, equally real dangers would seem to demand the exact opposite: advanced technological solutions, some within our present reach, and some that we can only imagine.

This is by no means an exhaustive (or even fundamental) critique of primitivism, but I think it illustrates the selective, short-termist, and ecologically naive thinking that often afflicts the movement. Which is pretty funny since primitivists routinely claim the mantle of long-term, holistic, ecological realism. Bring down civilization, and you're just giving our world a fairly trivial stay of execution, and guaranteeing a pretty grim standard of living in the meantime. Work towards a just, sustainable, and technologically progressive world, and we'll at least have a chance, and you might even get to keep your XBox.

3/24/18

How reactionary individualism keeps liberals from understanding systematic oppression

Yesterday I posted a brief take on how left criticism gets co-opted by systematic features of our discourse towards liberal outcomes. And immediately, critics tried to reframe this systematic critique as the work of individuals. One reader - a Jordan Peterson fan - wrote:
These leftists you speak of aren't leftists. They're IDPol liberals & it isn't media control powering their overwhelming dominance of left discourse it's the simple fact everyone is either a liberal or afraid of ID call-out.
Meanwhile, Jeopardy gamer Arthur Chu - in a comment co-signed by Noah Berlatsky and Jill Filipovic - insists:
I don't see any possible reading of this article that doesn't say that if your primary political focus is reproductive rights and abortion on demand, you are by definition "liberal" and not "leftist"
In one sense, these complaints are directly at odds: one reader notices that I'm not calling individual leftists liberals and thinks that I should, while another thinks that I am doing this, and doesn't want me to. In common, however, both of these readings are trying to understand our discourse in terms of individual agency, individual identity, and individual responsibility. Both want to tease out from my analysis some kind of commentary on moral choices that individual people are making, and from there a judgment about who is liberal or leftist, good or bad, and so on.

This of course has nothing to with what I actually wrote. The problem I am describing is systematic, not the sinister work of malevolent individuals. It happens, I maintain, "even as individual actors maintain commitments to left principles"; the defense of abortion rights, for example, falls firmly "within the liberal-left consensus." The problems with Really Existing Purity Politics emerge from impersonal dynamics such as "capitalist control of the industrialized media," which will platform some points of political critique, but which is existentially hostile towards criticism of capitalism.


What is telling, I think, is that Chu insists I am making some statement about individual actors, about their identity and personal responsibility - and admits that he doesn't "see any possible reading of this article" to the contrary.

Because for all of the sympathy liberals have voiced in recent years towards left critiques of systematic / structural power, they cannot, in the end, escape reactionary ideas about individual agency and personal responsibility. For the liberal, power ultimately comes down to individual actors making personal choices. Our problems with capitalism, for example, are really just a matter of bad apples being greedy or breaking the law; if only everyone would behave themselves, the system would work fine. Similarly, because our discourse is a neutral free marketplace of ideas, its problems can only come from individual people saying things that are wrong; thus, if I am saying that our discourse creates liberal outcomes, I must "by definition" be saying that its participants are liberals.

In any case, while my last article was not aimed at liberals, this one certainly is. There are liberals who engage in Really Existing Purity Politics, there are leftists who engage in it, and there are - as we see with Chu, Berlatsky, and Filipovic - a handful of concern trolls who occasionally identify themselves as "the left", but who will reliably attack anything that resembles a left critique of liberalism. As we have seen, they will even attack a take affirming pro-choice politics if it dares, as I have dared, to suggest that this fight could be co-opted by capitalism.

3/23/18

The liberal call for left purity

It rarely gets put explicitly, but unpack the rationale for a certain genre of left activism and you'll get something like this: to emancipate the poor and oppressed masses around the world, we must banish from left organizations and social circles people who believe and do reactionary things. In the discourse, this theory is usually litigated as a call for political purity. The theory's critics bring up all kinds of pragmatic considerations about the need to build political coalitions, about the subject's net contribution to the left given the pros and cons, about the position of the subject's crime in a ranking of priorities, and so on; the theory's partisans, meanwhile, maintain a simple, principled call for political righteousness.

If what we actually care about is justice, equality, and prosperity - and not just in our proximate social and political circles, but everywhere - I don't think that purity praxis survives much scrutiny. Here, however, I want to make a quite different point: really existing purity praxis, in its most dominant form in left discourse, has nothing to do with purity. Set aside the metaphysical Platonic ideal of what purity praxis could be or should be and watch how it actually plays out in the real world of left politics, and one can't miss how this really works. Left purity is enforced as long as it's in agreement with mainstream liberalism; when the two are at odds, left purity is ignored, or dismissed as negotiable.

Consider, to bring up the obvious example, the recurring call for a purge from the left of anyone who opposes legalized abortion. As a rule, this controversy always plays out the same way. Critics of the purge call for tolerance, or they call for a temporary suspension of judgment, or they try to insist that pro-life activists actually do meet left standards of political purity. The purge's partisans, meanwhile, assume an uncompromising political posture, waving away objections as trivial pedantry, or bad-faith rules-lawyering, or base, treacherous leniency.


Single out this controversy - bracket it off from the broader operation of political discourse - and it's easy to understand Really Existing Purity Praxis (REPP) as a principled defense of left politics. Take one step back, however, and it's clear that REPP abandons any interest in purity as soon as we enter the realm of left economics. I do not mean to say that we merely neglect efforts to enforce left economic orthodoxy - because it's worse than that. Consistently, REPP tolerates, normalizes, defends, and even promotes reactionary economic positions. And it does all of this while claiming the mantle of political purity, and excorciating its critics as heretics.

Hypocrisy aside, what I think the left should find most troubling about REPP is the way that its double standard just-so-happens to benefit liberalism. When our discourse only enforces leftism acceptable to the liberal consensus while treating everything distinctive about leftism as negotiable, or debatable, or even possibly wrong, the effect is to subordinate left politics to the liberal agenda. The problem with REPP isn't that it enforces pure leftism - the problem is that what REPP enforces is neither pure nor leftism. It's just an exercise in liberalism.


I don't think it makes very much sense to understand REPP as a conscious or deliberate tactic that liberals use to hijack left discourse, though this certainly happens in some cases. To appreciate how it works, all one really needs to notice is a few things:
  • Liberalism still has overwhelming control of our media and political institutions, and it still has more popular support among activists in the first world. For this reason, all liberal positions have a massive apparatus of ideological enforcement in place - even those that fall within the liberal-left consensus. Whether they enter left discourse as hostile critics, cynical concern trolls, or sympathetic fellow-travelers, liberals will inevitably exercise an enormous warping effect upon REPP, contributing to and amplifying critiques that are amenable to their agenda while neglecting or directly undermining those that they find inconvenient.
  • Even leftists who are committed to the entire left agenda - even those who are aware of the critique of REPP I have outline above - will nevertheless have more opportunities, and will find it far more comfortable, to practice REPP within the liberal-left consensus. Corporate media and medium blog posts pump out a constant, endless supply of critique within the liberal-left consensus for leftists to cosign; anti-liberal left critique, meanwhile, will receive far less positive feedback, and will often receive considerable flak. And while these dynamics prey upon the powerful psychological forces of conflict aversion and ideological conformity, neither of them require the leftist to betray their values and principles at any particular moment - so the leftist who does not make an active, deliberate effort to compensate for REPP will have everything to gain and nothing to lose by embracing it.
  • Meanwhile, within the nominal left, affirmative economic prescriptions remain controversial. And the absence of a consensus alternative to rally around often leaves liberalism’s economics critics fractured, or encourages a multi-tendency economic agnosticism that can subtly expand to accommodate liberalism itself. Thus, while left critique to liberalism is systematically inflated, left critiques of liberalism are systematically undermined.
This is how REPP can subordinate left politics to liberal discourse even as individual actors maintain commitments to left principles. It also explains how liberals who exclusively enforce liberal priorities can come to think of themselves as leftists: within REPP, their behavior is indistinguishable.

Having recognized the way that liberalism can seize control of purity politics, it is tempting to propose, among leftists, a deliberate focus on policing economic discourse and practice - not because it is "more important" or "more fundamental" in some sense, but simply as a corrective to its overwhelming systematic erasure by REPP. Personally, however, I don't think this disadvantage can be overcome by clever discourse gaming by the left, particularly since it emerges from the basically insurmountable material advantages liberalism gains from things like capitalist control of industrialized media. As long as capitalism is with us, it will maintain a powerful ideological apparatus that is capable of co-opting the left agenda at any moment. The solution to this, of course, is the abolition of capitalism, but how you get from here to there while capitalism remains in control of the discourse remains a puzzle.

3/16/18

Did Trump's top economic advisor endorse a wealth cap?

Trump has tapped Larry Kudlow to head the National Economic Council, and I can't stop thinking about what Kudlow wrote a while back:
...while the Left has demonized Trump’s cabinet appointees as a terrible group of successful business people, free-market capitalists such as myself regard this group as very good indeed...Why shouldn’t the president surround himself with successful people? Wealthy folks have no need to steal or engage in corruption.
Most pundits responded to this by explaining that the rich are often corrupt thieves, but what strikes me is how Kudlow is actually contradicting a major point of capitalist orthodoxy. In theory, the reason that we let the rich get even richer is that financial incentives motivate peak professional performance from our captains of industry. But here, Kudlow insists that the rich are not motivated by opportunities to make more money. If that's true, why not impose a maximum cap on wealth?

To appreciate just how off-message Kudlow's comment is, just look back to the 2008 financial crisis. As income inequality and executive pay came under more public scrutiny than it had in decades, here's how Ira T. Kay and Steven Van Putten, writing for the Cato Institute, responded:
Corporate boards design executive pay programs to attract, retain, and motivate executive to perform at high levels. Motivation plays an important role in companies' ability to achieve high returns and encourage executives to make decisions that increase shareholder values. Incentive pay programs are particularly effective motivators, especially at the top level of business.
This is all important, of course, because the "executive compensation system...has helped to generate great wealth for shareholders and millions of jobs for American workers." And that's how capitalism justifies itself to society: because income is what motivates our wealthy innovators and job-creators, we need to give them more money.

If pressed on this, Kudlow would undoubtedly revise his position and insist that the rich do need financial incentives - but that just exposes his comment as the empty rationalization of power that it is.

3/7/18

What do liberals mean by "authoritarian"?

The discourse on authoritarianism has significantly ramped up over the past decade:


Though Google trends can be an unreliable guide, the growth here maps onto some intuitive milestones: the first major spike corresponds directly with Donald Trump's Super Tuesday victories in the Republican primaries, and the next corresponds to his general election victory and inauguration. Much of the talk about authoritarianism clearly owes to liberal anxieties about Trump, though it has also, by association, become a choice adjective for Russia's Vladimir Putin.

Nicholas Kristof, writing on Trump's Threat to Democracy, offers a telling formulation:
“President Trump followed the electoral authoritarian script during his first year,” Levitsky and Ziblatt conclude. “...But the president has talked more than he has acted, and his most notorious threats have not been realized...” 
That seems right to me: The system worked.
For most of history since the emergence of the left proper during the French Revolution, this phrasing would have been unremarkable. "The system," of course, is our government; to say that it is "working" is to say that formal democracy is checking the power of some central authority. Some two hundred years ago, that meant subduing the monarchy; in the twentieth century, it meant binding the hands of various dictators. An "authoritarian" is the ultimate "threat to democracy" because that is how power works: some ruthless and ambitious person tries to personally seize control of the government.

If this theory of power sounds familiar, there's a reason: it's capitalism. Capitalism is the ideology which teaches us that all power is government power; since the free market operates on a principle of voluntary exchange, coercion only emerges when the state tells people what to do. That's why the only real authority is government authority. For libertarians, that's all authoritarianism is: the government exercising power. Liberals, meanwhile, carry on the Revolutionary tradition of opposing monarchs and neo-monarchs ("dictators", "tyrants", etc.) who wield government power; this may seem distinct from the libertarian formulation, but both see power and authority as exclusive properties of the state.

This notion of the "authoritarian" ignores precisely what capitalism ignores: every other form of power.

A crucial contribution of the modern left to our understanding of power is the insight that power does not just come from the government. Live in a patriarchal household and you'll see the authoritarian in the domination of husbands, fathers, and brothers. Listen to the way black folks are talked to and you'll hear the authoritarian in a white voice. Work for a micro-managing boss, or beg a bank for a loan, and you'll meet the authoritarians of the bourgeoisie. Every day we encounter tyrants who do not control the state, but who threaten our freedom and even our lives in a million different ways.

Liberalism may co-opt the language of intersectionality, but fundamentally, it believes precisely what Kristof believes: if we can just keep the government under control, "the system works." That's why liberals reserve "authoritarian" for villains in the government - to remind us where authority is, and to insist where authority is not.